The conventional way of discussing monetary policy is by referencing the interest rate target of the central bank. This is also the way that monetary policy is communicated in the basic New Keynesian model. The idea is that the transmission of monetary policy is primarily through the interest rate. I would like to argue in this post that this is a problematic way of thinking about monetary policy and that the transmission mechanism of policy is unclear.

In the New Keynesian model, the real interest rate affects the time path of consumption through the consumption Euler equation. In particular, when the real interest rate falls, the household would want to save less and therefore would want to consume more. This increases real economic activity in the current period. If we add capital to the model, a lower interest rate encourages a greater investment in capital. Thus, if monetary policy can affect the real interest rate in the short run, then the interest rate target of the central bank can be used as a stabilization tool.

This investment mechanism, however, is questionable. It ignores how investment is actually done in the real world. We can illustrate this lesson with a simple example.

Suppose that there is a firm. The firm produces a product and is deciding whether to build a new factory to increase its production. Let V(t) denote the value of the factory at time t. The initial value of the project is . Now suppose that the value to the firm of building the factory is growing over time:

It follows that the value of the factory at some arbitrary date in the future, say time T, is

Now suppose that the cost to build the factory is some fixed cost, . The firm’s objective is to choose the optimal point in time to build the factory so as to maximize the expected discounted net value of the project:

where is the real interest rate. The maximization problem implies that

Assuming that (i.e. the optimal time to invest is not immediately), it is straightforward to see that when the real interest rate declines, it is beneficial to put off the investment further into the future.

We can understand the intuition behind this result as follows. In a standard model with capital, the marginal product of capital (net of some adjustment cost) is equal to the real interest rate. Thus, when the real interest rate falls, the firm wants to increase its investment in capital, but because it is costly to adjust that capital, it takes time for the capital stock to reach the firm’s desired level. In contrast, the framework presented above suggests that investment is an option and the firm has to decide when to exercise that option. In that case, a lower the real interest rate means that the future is more important (all else equal). But if the future is more important, then that increases the opportunity cost of exercising the option today. So the firm would want to wait to exercise the option.

So which way is best to think about interest rates and investment? The empirical evidence on the issue (albeit somewhat dated) seems to suggest that price variables, like the real interest rate, are not particularly useful in explaining investment (at least compared to other variables). So is this really the mechanism that should be emphasized in the conduct of monetary policy?

[I should note that this insight is (at least I thought) well known. This example is precisely the example provided by Dixit and Pindyck (1994). Countless other examples can be found in Stokey (2008).]